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Inclusive Postsecondary Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Good news! There are exciting new college possibilities for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) for the first time provided access to financial aid to students with intellectual disability attending college programs that meet the requirements of a “Comprehensive Transition Program” (CTP). The legislation emphasizes participation in inclusive college courses and internships and requires the students to be socially and academically integrated to the maximum extent possible. CTPs are designed for postsecondary students with intellectual disabilities to continue academic, career and technical, and independent living instruction in order to prepare for employment.

While the legislation did not mandate that colleges offer programs, it did provide grants to create or expand model Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSIDs), as well as funding for the national coordinating center, Think College, based out of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

As of May 2023, there were 310 non-degree programs on university and college campuses across the country offering students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to take college classes, engage in career development and independent living activities and participate in the social life of the campus.

Learn why inclusive postsecondary education is important (and possible!) for students with intellectual disabilities, how to find the right program, how to prepare, and how to stay involved and supportive throughout their journey.

Why is inclusive postsecondary education important for students with intellectual disabilities?

Higher expectations and inclusive K-12 education has allowed students and families to see the potential of attending a college program. While there are important concerns to address and questions to answer regarding safety, access, supports, and transportation, the benefits of postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities almost always outweigh the challenges. The development and growth of academic, work and personal skills, independent living, friendships, and self-advocacy are a few of the many positive student outcomes. In addition, Think College outcome data shows program participants are employed post-graduation at significantly higher rates with higher average wages.


What does Inclusive Postsecondary Education (IPSE) for students with intellectual disabilities look like?

Programs can have many different characteristics. For example, they can be part of a 2-year community college campus or a 4-year college or university campus. Some, but not all, offer a residential component, either on or off campus. Some programs serve students who are still enrolled in public school after 12th grade (these are called “dual enrollment” or “concurrent enrollment” programs). Most serve students who have completed their public education, with or without a “regular diploma.” Programs may offer a variety of credentials, the most common of which is a certificate.

Programs also offer varying degrees of participation in regular college classes with students without disabilities. They may be fully inclusive, meaning that academics, social events, and independent living support take place with students without disabilities. Other programs offer a less inclusive program, where students spend more time in classes and activities with other students with intellectual disabilities. However, in order for a Comprehensive Transition Program to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, students must participate at least half of the time in inclusive classes or work experiences. Recent Think College evaluations find an increase in inclusive class participation.

In addition to the program’s director and team of educators, many programs utilize coaches or mentors to provide support in inclusive settings. Mentors are often students at the college who receive training and may volunteer or be paid.

A great starting point for families to learn more about the ins and outs of college programs is the Frequently Asked Questions section of Think College’s Family Resources webpage.

What are the admission requirements?

Students attending Comprehensive Transition Programs are required to have an “intellectual disability” as defined in the HEOA. The term “student with an intellectual disability” means a student with “…a cognitive impairment, characterized by significant limitations in intellectual and cognitive functioning; and adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills; and who is currently, or was formerly, eligible for a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” (If a student is not identified as having an intellectual disability during kindergarten through 12th grade, other documentation may be provided establishing that the student has an intellectual disability.)

Not all programs included in the Think College database are Comprehensive Transition Programs and admission requirements vary. Most serve a limited number of students each year and acceptance is not guaranteed. Acceptance criteria can often be found on the program’s website. It’s important to keep in mind that many factors are taken into consideration on an individual student and program basis. In addition, it is expected that programs will provide support and instruction for independent living. Although website information is helpful, you will want to have a conversation with program staff to clarify expectations and discuss individual concerns. The list below is a compilation of some examples of guidelines for admissions listed by various programs.

The admission process often includes these steps:

By learning about expectations for students and the skills that contribute to successful participation, families can begin early on to provide opportunities for skill-building at home and to advocate for IEP goals and transition services that will prepare their daughter or son for college.

How do families locate and learn about Inclusive Postsecondary Education (IPSE) opportunities?

* — While the number of programs is increasing, there are parts of the country without programs. The energy, commitment and passion of parents has been a key component in the passage of legislation and the development of programs. Consider how you might join forces with other families, educators and advocacy organizations in your state to create new opportunities.


What can students and families do now to prepare for an inclusive college experience?

Having college as a long-range goal can change the trajectory of a student’s K-12 education and can be a powerful factor in advocating for inclusive placements. While in high school, or earlier if possible, set the expectation of college as a “measurable postsecondary goal.”

To adopt a goal as their own, students need to be able to picture the possibility. Plan a visit to a nearby college program or schedule a tour as part of a family vacation. Visit programs virtually by watching videos together like this one from the Think College Resource Library: I Am Thinking College (Even with My Disability) (8 min)

Include college-preparation skills in your son or daughter’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Think about goals and objectives that will lead to skills needed for success in postsecondary education such as using electronic communication, signing up for activities, choosing courses based on career goals, managing a schedule, and learning how to access information online. College is a pathway to a career and integrated employment will be an important component of the college program. Gaining community-based work experience in high school and developing employment soft skills will contribute to success in college and beyond.

Along with thoughtful IEP development, there are many other ways that parents and families can help students prepare for a more independent life. Practicing independent living tasks such as laundry, cooking, and scheduling appointments will be beneficial for college life.


How can families pay for college?

Paying for college can be challenging for all students, and specialized programs with added supports can be expensive. Families of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are encouraged to begin early to explore options for financial aid as well as funding sources that may be available through other agencies.  ABLE accounts are a new option that allows for saving for college while preserving public benefits such as Social Security Income and Medical Assistance, and allow for rollovers from 529 college savings accounts. Think College has put together a Paying for College webpage with resources to read, videos to watch, and a set of frequently asked questions to help parents and students understand ways to pay for college. Federal Student Aid is available for students with intellectual disabilities who meet basic aid eligibility and attend a Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program. Families can also check into funding sources such as Social Security, Developmental Disabilities and Medicaid programs, and Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Scholarships like Ruby’s Rainbow for students with Down Syndrome may offer financial support to fund postsecondary opportunities.


How will parents be involved when their young adults with ID are attending college?

Parents accustomed to their active role as a member of the IEP and transition team are often surprised at the major change in expectations for parent involvement in college settings, even when the parent is the legal guardian. Throughout K-12 education, parents often plan, communicate, and advocate for their son or daughter. In college, parents will be planning, communicating, and advocating with their son or daughter. It can be helpful for parents to view themselves not as the decision-maker, but as the advisor or consultant for their young adult.

Each college will have their own policies and procedures regarding parent involvement and family engagement. It is important to have clear expectations about roles and responsibilities and communication channels prior to enrolling in a program. Many colleges make it a practice to communicate directly only with the student and expect the student to communicate information to their parents, even when the student has provided consent for the college to share information. Postsecondary institutions may state that they cannot communicate education or health information to families due to the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA). However, students may sign a FERPA waiver allowing such communication.

The role of the parent changes, but it does not end. Parents’ high expectations and appropriate involvement can support a young adult’s self-determination, autonomy, and interdependence. Families can continue to help youth build soft skills, tap into their personal networks, provide transportation, contribute valuable student information, and reinforce college program goals and student expectations.